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Yitro and Rejoicing with God

To know God is to fear God. So the Torah suggests. In this week’s reading we learn that the experience of Sinai is terrifying.

“There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16)

This is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mount Sinai. In fact the people were so overwhelmed by the experience that they begged Moses to spare them further divine encounters. They pleaded, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)

We ask: if the goal of our tradition is to draw us close to God how do we find encouragement in these words? How can a story filled with fear and dread provide us with inspiration? And so the rabbis reimagined the experience. In their eyes holiness becomes more manageable and God more approachable. To know God is to draw affirmation in the mundane, in the ordinary and everyday. Rabbi Akiva in fact understands Song of Songs, a biblical love song, not as words that describe romantic love between two people but instead as the love between Israel and God.

We are wed to God. We echo such sentiments with the words of Lecha Dodi. We sing: “Come my beloved to meet the bride.” We greet the Sabbath bride. We welcome the divine. For the Kabbalists, who authored this prayer, the experience of God was synonymous with lovemaking. We draw close to God as one draws near a lover. Their literature is filled with eroticism. It is intoxicated with loving God.

We continue to struggle with how to give voice to our encounter with God.

The unparalleled Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes:
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read and write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
This one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
Amichai’s insight is well founded. (And I recall it in part because we remember the Challenger astronauts who thirty years ago gave their lives in pursuit of touching heaven’s joys.) Why is pain and heartache more precise than joy and celebration? Fear of God appears easier to describe than love of God. One misplaced word can give rise to dread.

Fear is a far simpler thing to summon than love. Terror seeps into our hearts. Rejoicing requires courage.

Our senses become confused. We become overwhelmed.

The Torah concurs. It offers these words about Sinai: “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning…” (Exodus 20:15)

You cannot see thunder! The people’s senses are likewise confused and overwhelmed.

We are unable to find the words to describe such an awesome experience. The holy, the overwhelming, the joyous defy description. Perhaps then we must resort to poetry and songs.

How can we find words for our joys? And yet rejoicing must become our foundation. Only simcha can carry us forward. Only rejoicing can banish the trembling.

When we sing, when we dance, and when we celebrate we experience God.

When we rejoice we approach Sinai.

Still we have no words.

“I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.”